By Kyle Osborne
Playwright August Wilson had already achieved star status by the time of his death in 2005 at the too young age of 60. His cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century, included the celebrated Fences, and introduced theatre goers to his hometown of Pittsburgh—specifically the Hill District—an historic and once thriving African-American community.
In Two Trains Running, currently playing at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, it’s 1969, and that neighborhood is in the throes of gentrification. Old buildings are coming down to make room for new, more expensive ones, which will displace the residents.
Meanwhile, in a down-on-its-luck diner, owner Memphis (Jefferson A. Russell) is not going quietly. He wants the city to pay him $25,000 dollars for his greasy spoon and he’s not willing to negotiate. It’s a fair though wholly unrealistic sum, but he is unmoved.
We will spend both acts of the play inside this diner which, fortunately, has a very sturdy door; that faded green door will take a beating during the three hour run time, every character announcing his entry by throwing the door open and punctuating his exit with a hearty slam.
And what a cast of characters! There’s Hambone (an incredibly nuanced performance by Frank Britton) who only says “I want my ham!” and “He gonna give me my ham!” throughout the first act, referring to a white shop owner up the street who agreed to pay with a ham for a job well done, but then refused. The mentally challenged Hambone’s plight, like that of Memphis, is that he has played by the rules to no avail. There’s always a white man’s metaphorical boot ready to stomp on any dreams of getting ahead in life.
One might think that such a narrative baseline would make for a difficult evening, but Wilson’s characters, especially as played by this amazing ensemble, perform with the physical comedic chops and light delivery of a sit-com. That is a compliment. The laughs are frequent, even as the larger point is being made. Like a 70’s TV sitcom, the action is limited to one set, with the familiar faces sending a kind of warmth to the back row. We like these people. We empathize with them.
The set is realistic, and the lighting isn’t too fussy but does the job. The direction is breezy and grounded, in spite of the aforementioned frequent chuckles. (Holloway) Michael Anthony Williams hangs his hat on the hook as if he really has been coming to the dilapidated diner his whole life. He spryly hops into the red vinyl seat of his favorite booth, smiling and eliciting the same from the audience. He’s a yarn-spinner and a wise old cuss. It’s a wonderful performance.
In fact, the whole cast meshes with a naturalism that never makes one question its authenticity. If there’s any complaint, it’s that the set has the actors scattered too far apart from one another. Why is that a problem? Because there are so many subtle things going on—an expression here, a head shake there---that one fears that looking to the far left of the stage means missing something on the far right.
It’s a rush to experience a full house of theatre goers who are all in sync with the performers, but that’s just one of the many pleasures of this production. For perfect strangers to come together in the dark and feel that The Hill District could be their own home must have been a dream of Wilson’s. If so, consider the dream fulfilled, Mr. Wilson.
Two Trains Running continues at Round House Theatre through May 4. Tickets are available via Round House’s website. http://www.roundhousetheatre.org/